Tag Archives: bioethics

Can an unborn child feel pain?

April 21, 2011

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During an in-womb procedure to correct spina bifida on a 21-week-old fetus, the baby's hand grips the finger of Dr. Joseph Bruner in an operating room at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 19, 1999. (CNS photo by Michael Clancy)

Minnesota legislators are considering a proposal that would prohibit most abortions after 20 weeks gestation because of scientific evidence that an unborn child feels pain by this age. The proposal follows from a state law passed in 2005 requiring abortion providers and referring physicians to inform a woman that pain-reducing medication is available for her unborn baby prior to an abortion.

In addition to their legal applications, these laws also serve an educational purpose. They help people to understand that children in the womb — even only halfway through a pregnancy — are real human beings. They are growing rapidly, and they perceive pain. Subjecting them to abortion makes a procedure that is already inhumane seem all the more horrific.

Not everyone, however, agrees with the science the laws are based on. A quick review of the scientific literature on the topic reveals a lack of consensus among doctors and researchers about the age at which a fetus begins to feel pain. A 2005 article, for example, in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that “evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.”

One of the arguments is that the nervous system of a fetus isn’t developed enough to feel pain the way you and I do — that at 20 weeks, pain signals don’t reach the cerebral cortex where pain is perceived.

But more has been studied and written since that article was published. I remember a long story from 2008 in The New York Times Magazine that cited the views of a number of doctors and researchers who disputed the idea that unborn children don’t feel pain.

Dr. Kanwaljeet Anand, a fetal pain researcher now working at the University of Tennessee, noted in the article that a structure called the fetal subplate zone of the brain is functioning by 17 weeks and is capable of processing pain signals.

The article also cited research conducted by Nicholas Fisk, a fetal medicine specialist and director of the University of Queensland Center for Clinical Research in Australia.

He had conducted research that, he said, shows fetuses as young as 18 weeks respond to invasive procedures with an increase in stress hormones and by forcing more blood to the brain to protect it from a perceived threat.

The magazine article explains:

“Fisk says he believes that his findings provide suggestive evidence of fetal pain — perhaps the best evidence we’ll get. Pain, he notes, is a subjective phenomenon; in adults and older children, doctors measure it by asking patients to describe what they feel. (‘On a scale of 0 to 10, how would you rate your current level of pain?’) To be certain that his fetal patients feel pain, Fisk says, ‘I would need one of them to come up to me at the age of 6 or 7 and say, “Excuse me, Doctor, that bloody hurt, what you did to me!” ‘ In the absence of such first-person testimony, he concludes, it’s ‘better to err on the safe side’ and assume that the fetus can feel pain starting around 20 to 24 weeks.”

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, wrote about several problematic elements of the JAMA article when it was published six years ago.

He also pointed out something very important that today’s doctors and scientists should remember: “If there is uncertainty about when the infant in utero can begin to feel pain, should we not err on the side of caution and presume that she is entitled to pain medication when being subjected to typically painful or noxious stimuli?”

Father Pacholczyk, who holds a doctorate in neuroscience from Yale University, added:

“Yet a deeper concern remains. By offering pain control during an abortion, we still would not succeed in redeeming or sanitizing the act itself. Pain-free killing is still killing. But at least by encouraging abortion doctors and their pregnant patients to consider the pain the infant may experience, they may be prompted to consider a deeper dimension of what they are doing. By challenging their highly suspect presumptions about fetal pain, they may ultimately be pushed to look not only at the discomfort implicit in the procedure, but to revisit the more basic question about the practice itself which brings the life of an innocent human being to an untimely and unjust end.”

Some Minnesota legislators are now revisiting “the more basic question” and calling for a ban on abortions after 20 weeks as another step in ending a procedure that is immoral at any time — and that science persuasively shows is the painful taking of a human life.

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Are Catholic universities doing enough to foster the religion-science dialogue?

April 7, 2011

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CNS photo/NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team, Reuters

New scientific advancements are rapidly changing the way we live and how we think about the world and the universe. At the same time, these advancements often raise new moral and religious questions.

Unfortunately, “few Catholic universities have devoted resources to educating theologians willing to engage with the scientific world,” says Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio, in a recent article in America magazine, “Faith and The Cosmos: Can Catholic Universities Foster Dialogue Between Religion and Science?”

In this well-written commentary, Sister Delio, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, argues that Catholic universities need to do more to become leaders in promoting the religion-science dialogue. And that includes engaging seminarians more on the topic so they are better prepared to address important pastoral issues when they become priests.

The church has a valuable contribution to make in this area. Sister Delio writes:

“While the church recognizes the importance of science for the development of faith, it also recognizes the limits of science as the ultimate horizon of meaning. . . .

“Theologians are needed to reflect on the big questions of meaning and purpose in light of evolution, ecology and technology, as well as to comment on the moral questions raised, especially by the biomedical sciences.”

The latter field is especially in need of clear reflection in light of the moral and ethical dimensions of stem-cell research, cloning and care for the terminally ill.

Sister Delio’s article is well worth taking the time to read.

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Stem-cell collaboration

May 31, 2010

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Scientific analysisThe church often gets labeled as being against science because of its opposition to embryonic stem-cell research. Few realize the church is actually a strong supporter of stem-cell research, just not the kind that destroys nascent human life.

A recent announcement by an international biopharmaceutical company and the Pontifical Council for Culture demonstrates the church’s commitment to advance ethical research.

Foundations affiliated with NeoStem and the Vatican agency — whose foundation has made an initial $1 million commitment to the venture — will work together to educate people around the world about the benefits of adult stem-cell research to treat disease and alleviate suffering.

Plans are to sponsor an international conference on adult stem-cell research at the Vatican in 2011. The Vatican and NeoStem also hope to develop educational programs, publications and academic courses to address the scientific, theological and philosophical questions surrounding stem-cell research, according to a Catholic News Service story.

“We want to be able to deliver to our pastors, to our bishops, information that will help them respond to the bioethical questions raised by Catholics at the local level,” said Father Tomasz Trafny, an official with the culture council. “We need to understand the technologies, the science, many things, in order to know what kinds of answers we need to provide for them.”

NeoStem holds exclusive worldwide rights to VSEL (very small embryonic-like) stem-cell technology. According to the CNS story, Dr. Robin Smith, chair and chief executive of NeoStem, said the technology has the potential of achieving “the positive benefits associated with embryonic stem cells without the ethical or moral dilemmas as well as other negative effects associated with embryonic stem cells.”

This initiative is one way the church is walking its talk on ethical research. We need more like this.

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